No words to describe the suffering

Published 3:18 pm Friday, November 17, 2023

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For the last 18 years I have worked in conflict settings all around the world. I’ve gone to 45 countries on four continents. I have not experienced the worst assaults on humanity directly, but through the stories told by the survivors (though sometimes they wish they had died) and memorials constructed to ensure that we never forget or let history repeat itself. 

When I worked in Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami, I met people who were equally challenged by the ethnic conflict and the natural disaster. I got to know my translators and interpreters quite well, as I do not have fluency in Sinhalese or Tamil.

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We were installing solar powered lights into relief villages. There was a man who was all alone, all 31 members of his family had perished. I asked, “what is he saying?” The answer, “There is no English word for the pain he has described.”

I have had many experiences where the English language was incomplete. In class I teach students topics like sympathy and empathy. I share stories. Sympathy is feeling bad about the horrors others experience, empathy is feeling their pain. 

In Arabic there is a word with no English language equivalent (although certainly an equivalent emotion): thakla. It is a reference to the specific pain or torment a parent (usually a mother) has from losing a child. 

Sometimes it seems as though people cannot empathize or sympathize with the pain others are experiencing. This may be part of the explanation for the apparent acceptance of the Israeli airstrikes that have killed 3,000 children since Hamas’ attacks on Oct. 7. 

I have seen parents lay their children to rest. It is easy for me to insist on zero tolerance for killing innocent children. Such use of violence only makes clear a lack of compassion or reverence for life.

There is a famous quote: “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind”–John F. Kennedy.

It is self-explanatory, we eclipsed the capacity for mutually assured destruction—species extinction—decades ago. But I think there is a deeper meaning in what an end to mankind is.

If we fail to recognize the cries of babies, Israeli or Palestinian or refugee, that is an end. The moment we fail to see humankind in innocent children—which happens in war—we start losing our own humanity. Elie Wiesel described the loss of his compassion in concentration camps during the holocaust as most concerning; to him it was most central to being human. 

Inexplicably and indefensibly, we continue to accept, allow, and tolerate the use of violence. Immoral in its civilian casualties and unthinkable in its counterproductivity; we have never bombed our way to peace. Maybe one day we will have a word to specifically describe such nonsensical devotion to failed strategy. For the meantime we will have to learn “thakla” because the only guarantee is more grieving parents. Sadly, for many it is a lesson they will never forget.

(Wim Laven, Ph.D. teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution. )